New Mexico Food Agency Declared Contemptuous

     ALBUQUERQUE (CN) — A federal judge recommended that New Mexico’s Human Services Department be held in contempt for failing to abide by court-ordered changes to its troubled food and medical assistance programs.
     New Mexico has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation: one in three New Mexicans receive some form of public assistance.
     The state’s Medicaid and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs, formerly called food stamps, have been accused of violating federal regulations for decades.
     A class-action lawsuit filed in 1988 accused the state’s Human Services Department of failing to notify applicants about the emergency SNAP program, of not processing applications within the federally mandated time period, and of denying valid applications.
     That lawsuit has not yet been resolved 28 years later, despite a negotiated resolution and an agreement to “make good faith efforts to resolve any differences that may arise in the prospective implementation of the decree,” U.S. Magistrate Judge Carmen Garza wrote in her July 15 recommendation that the Human Services Department be held in contempt of court.
     Garza said the state’s failure to comply with court orders despite multiple deadline extensions was grounds not only for contempt charges but necessitated the appointment of a special master to oversee the Human Services Department.
     Though Garza noted that Human Services Secretary Brett Earnest has acknowledged that his department “must make serious and fundamental changes in order for the SNAP and Medicaid programs in New Mexico to come into compliance with federal law and the court orders,” she added: “Defendant’s realization has come entirely too late.”
     The continuing failures have a profound effect on New Mexicans, Garza wrote, for “when an eligible SNAP or Medicaid applicant is denied or delayed in receiving benefits, that individual loses benefits he or she may rely on to eat, feed his or her children, or to receive essential medical coverage.”
     In response to the judicial rebuke, Human Services spokesman Kyler Nerison told the Albuquerque Journal: “While we don’t agree with everything in the judge’s decision, it does include our proposal that would bring in an outside, impartial monitor to review compliance and help resolve any of these long-standing issues — some three decades old — while at the same time allowing us to continue providing resources to New Mexicans who need them most.”
     Garza ordered that a special master be in place no later than Jan. 1, 2018, to “objectively review and determine HSD’s compliance with the consent decree, other court orders, and federal law concerning the process for obtaining and maintaining Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (‘SNAP’) and Medicaid benefits.”

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